May 6, 2008, Washington, DC – A statistician told a House panel today that male U.S. veterans between the ages of 20 and 24 are three times more likely to commit suicide than non-veterans their ages.
In general, veteran suicide rates are about double those of non-veterans, Stephen L. Rathbun, interim head of the Department of Epidemiology & Biostatistics at the University of Georgia, said in testimony before the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs.
“The pattern of higher estimated veteran suicide risk was observed for both genders and all age classes,” Rathbun said.
Rathbun said he analyzed the statistics on veteran suicides for a CBS News investigation and was not paid for his work. He said he was chosen for his impartiality, but did not have a peer review his findings. The news story aired Dec. 12.
E-mail attracts attention
U.S. Rep. Bob Filner, D-Calif., the committee chairman, called the hearing titled, “The Truth About Veterans’ Suicides,” and requested that Ira Katz, the mental health director at the Department of Veterans Affairs, explain to the committee an internal e-mail he sent to the VA public affairs office.
The subject line of the e-mail read, “shh,” which Katz said was “unfortunate.” The e-mail states that 12,000 veterans attempt suicide a year while under VA treatment. “Is this something we should (carefully) address ourselves in some sort of release before someone stumbles on it?” the e-mail asks.
Filner asked the new Veterans Affairs Secretary James B. Peake – whose tenure began in December – if he was “going to assure accountability” of Katz “and anyone who participated in the cover-up of this data. I want to know if you are really going to take your role seriously. This isn’t an abstract. This is about our veterans and whether they have a life ahead of them or not.”
Filner told Katz that he seemed – in the e-mail – more concerned about managing the data than helping veterans.
Katz said that the e mail “was in poor tone” and that the “content was a dialog” about discussing the high rate of suicides, adding, “I deeply regret the subject line.”
Filner said that Katz should be fired, but Peake said after the hearing he did not plan to fire him. White House press secretary Dana Perino said that the president has “full confidence in Peake.”
The e-mail was recently disclosed during a trial in San Francisco which is still pending. Two veteran groups are asking the judge to order the VA to improve its mental health care.
In Western Massachusetts, a Belchertown couple, Joyce and Kevin Lucey, filed suit in the summer against the Department of Veterans Affairs for the wrongful death of their son, Marine Lance Cpl. Jeffery M. Lucey, 23, an Iraq veteran who returned home and within several months began having nightmares and drinking heavily.
The parents allege in their suit that the VA Medical Center at Leeds failed to give their son the medical care he needed which led to his death. The parents said the VA center refused to admit the Marine reservist on June 5, 2004. He hung himself on June 22, 2004, within a year of returning home.